A few weeks into the 2013 session, after getting properly sworn in, I was told about a nonprofit organization that offers young leaders an opportunity to travel abroad to meet with leaders in other parts of the world. ACYPL, the American Council of Young Political Leaders, has been around for decades, though I'd never heard of it before, and has been sending young (ages 25-40) political leaders to all corners of the globe, and brings leaders from those far flung corners here to the U.S. The goal of ACYPL is to educate leaders about the culture, government, politics and business environment of their counterparts across the world. Each exchange is made up of an equal number of democrats and republicans – ACYPL is nonpartisan.
You cannot ask to be sent on an exchange, but must be nominated. I didn't know it at the time, but I was nominated twice, including once from a democratic representative from Delaware who I met last summer while speaking on a panel about Kentucky's 2013 Senate Bill 1 (the military e-voting bill I co-sponsored). A nomination is considered for up to two years while ACYPL decides which nominees to grant an exchange offer. In early 2014 I was offered a chance to join an exchange to China and Taiwan. I eagerly (if nervously) accepted!
Some of my thoughts on Taiwan...
- I'm still not clear on the relationship between China and Taiwan. On the surface they appear to be distinct countries. China is a communist-controlled country, Taiwan has a democratically elected President and legislature. Yet mainland China operates as if Taiwan belongs to the mainland, and Taiwan respects China's position, on some level at least, to keep the peace. It feels to me like something's gotta give.
- Democracy works! China's mainland shows why communism fails and Taiwan is an example of how democracy can work – and for the benefit of its people and economy.
- Taiwan depends enormously on the U.S. for economic and political muscle.
- In Taiwan we were taken more seriously than in China. By that I mean our various hosts and officials often believed we have more influence than I think we have. More than a few times we were told about the significance of the "TPP," or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vital trade deal under negotiation between several pacific nations. Taiwan wants in and knows that the U.S. supporting their participation is the biggest bargaining chip they've got (if not only). Various people we encountered asked us to support Taiwan's role in the TPP – as if any of us has a say. ...maybe they're just planting the seeds on the chance one of us in the group is ever in a position of influence down the road.
- Most Taiwanese (on the order of 80+%) want to maintain the status quo between themselves and the mainland. I keep feeling like something's got to give, and they greatly want nothing to happen at all. I'm surprised there isn't a bigger push for independence, and I can't tell if they fear the mainland or simply prefer being half-independent-half-not. I can't imagine wanting to keep that status quo.
- Taiwan food is similar to the mainland - thankfully the hotel in Taipei had a breakfast buffet with things I recognized.
- I can drink either diet Pepsi or diet Coke, but tend to prefer the former. But if Pepsi-Co wants in on the Chinese/Taiwanese market they better get to it. CocaCola owns the place.
- While I'm thinking about food, I'll note that chilled drinks are not typical in either China or Taiwan. I had lots of room temperature water, orange juice and watermelon juice, not to mention Diet Coke (which is actually called "Coke Light"). When the watermelon juice is chilled its delicious!
- Peking Duck tastes really good.
- There are as many pedestrians as there are mopeds. Lane markings on the street have practically no meaning at all in either China or Taiwan. No. Meaning. At. All.
- For my readers here in Kentucky, you may be pleased to hear that KFC rules the restaurant world. KFCs are to Beijing and Kunming and 7-Elevens are to Taipei as Starbucks are to Seattle.
- Taiwan's export economy is largely based on high tech manufacturing, including the chips, boards and other components in many of the devices we use every day.
- While ACYPL has been partnering with ACYF (All China Youth Federation) on the mainland and TECRO and the AIT (American Institute of Taiwan) for 35 years, the people of Taiwan have only recently been able to return to the mainland, and vice versa. Since the current Taiwan presidential administration has been in place the Taiwan Strait relationship has developed for the benefit of both populations.